Shaykh Mufid by Tamima Bayhom-Daou

(First published 2005)

The book under review belongs to a series labelled “Makers of the Muslim World” conceived by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. It is a highly readable biography of Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Nu’man al-‘Ukbari al-Baghdadi, popularly known as Shaykh al-Mufid (949-1022), who was one of the most influential Shia Muslim scholars of the classical period. It also summarises the findings of modern academia on Mufid’s works, his place in Shia scholarly tradition and his influence on the subsequent generations of Shia scholars.

Contrary to my expectations this book turned out to be a non-specialised account written for basic readers who do not have prior acquaintance with Shia theology and jurisprudence. The author says in the preface that this book is mainly written from secondary sources, that is, recent modern work done on Shaykh Mufid’s thought which is highly specialised and therefore inaccessible to general readers. However, he makes use of primary source material including, but not limited to, Shaykh Mufid’s “Kitab al-Irshad”, which he translates as “The Book of Guidance”.

Shaykh Mufid was born only eight years after the Greater Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (began AD 941) and lived and taught mostly in Baghdad. Around the time of his birth, the Abbasid caliphate came under the control of Perisan Buyids who became the de facto rulers in Baghdad as well as in Western Persia where they had already established their empire. These Buyid rulers were of Zaidi Shia persuasion, most not all, but they allowed a remarkable degree of independence to all Islamic sects to practice their religion and engage in debates, discussions and polemics on theological issues. It was during this time that the Shia Itha `Asharis (Twelvers) were allowed to hold their religious events publicly. The Shia Ithna `Ashari scholars took full advantage of the safe environment and disseminated their teachings and engaged openly in debates with their opponents. Shaykh Mufid, during these circumstances, led the Shia Ithna `Asharis from the front.

Shaykh Mufid is credited with introducing an increased role of reason in Shia theology and jurisprudence. During the time of the Minor Occultation (AD 874–941) and earlier, traditional Shia scholarship was concentrated solely on transmitting hadith reports from the Imams. Shia scholars at that time made minimal use of interpretative reasoning to explain away certain laws and beliefs as reached them from the hadith. The most important and historically immediate theologian of that approach was al-Kulayni who had already composed his collection of hadith reports under the title of al-Kafi (The Sufficient).

Ibn Babuya al-Qummi, a teacher of Shaykh Mufid, in his theological works relied almost exclusively on traditional sources, preferring to quote Quran and hadith reports and ascribing them sole authoritorial and explanatory power over his own interpretative words. In Qummi’s view kalam as a theological discipline was superfluous; he believed that all the necessary rational arguments had been formulated by the Imams themselves and might already be found in hadith reports. Shaykh Mufid criticised his teacher’s viewpoint and argued in favour of a role of reason and defended the use of kalam.

Shaykh Mufid is said to be influenced by the rational theology of Mu`tazili school of thought. Despite, he did not make reason as one of the sources of religious knowledge as Mu`tazila had done. Rather, he regarded reason essentially as a means of constructing arguments in the defense of doctrines which have already been established by revelation and hadith. Recent research, argued the book, has rather incorrectly concluded that Shaykh Mufid single-handedly shifted Shia scholarship from one that relied on traditionalist approach to one which was reason-oriented, much in the imitation of the Mu`tazila. The author disputes these findings and suggests that it was a gradual shift which had started in the latter part of the 9th century, the time when Minor Occultation began, and continued till the end of 10th century. Mufid was an instrumental link in the two approaches in that he employed the methods of interpretive reasoning more rigorously than any one had done before him. Later, his students took it further and dominated Shia scholarship for the next century or so. Shaykh Mufid’s famous students included Shaykh Tusi and the brothers Murtada and Radi. This concludes the central argument of the book.

Further, the book is divided into chapters detailing Shaykh Mufid’s positions on various historical, theological and jurisprudential issues as well as his disagreements with other Ithna `Ashari scholars before him and with non-Ithna `Ashari Shia like the Zaydiya. Two chapters outline his views on the Imamate as proved from historical accounts (like the event of Ghadeer Khum) and from theological arguments (like the necessity of having an Imam at all times). The other two chapters provide a brief summary of Mufid’s theology and jurisprudence.

The scholars of Minor Occultation and later period were particularly hard pressed by the objections of the non-Shia who ridiculed the concept of Imamate and denied the existence of the Twelfth Imam as a fantasy. It was a period of transition for the Shia scholarship; from near-complete reliance on the words of a living Imam to complete independence in the wake of Greater Occultation. Before that, physically present Imams directed them in religious and other matters; now they were left to their own devices with the job of satisfying perplexed believers without any direct guidance from an infallible Imam.

Some Shia scholars of the day rejected ijtihad (interpretive reasoning); they believed that every problem a believer might possibly face could already be found in hadith reports from the Imams, and that no “new cases” could ever come up for which ijtihad (interpretive reasoning) or qiyas (analogical reasoning) might be required. Shaykh Mufid appeared to have accepted this view but later changed it in favour of ijtihad as being a necessary tool to deal with “new cases”, for he realised the inevitability of new cases for which there was no precedence in the Islamic scriptural canon, and therefore a qualified scholar had to indulge in ijtihad (as opposed to qiyas) to find a hukm (ruling) in line with the Shariah.

Thus, in conclusion, Shaykh Mufid stands as vital link in the Shia Ithna `Ashari scholarship which, in times of confusion and perplexity caused by the absence of an infallible guide, found it hard to answer its opponents and satisfy its believers. The methods of interpretive reasoning introduced by Mufid in Shia scholarship were to reach new heights in the times of his students, who in their turn were some of the biggest names in Shia scholarship.

My rating 4/5. The book is on AMAZON.


2 thoughts on “Shaykh Mufid by Tamima Bayhom-Daou

  1. thanks for this wonderful review and congratulations!
    In this series I have only read Usha Sanyal’s write up on the Indian scholar Ahmed Riza Khan Barelvi.
    I am so glad I have found this blog!

  2. Hi, I recently acquired a few titles from this series. I read this one first. I have yet to read Tabari, Ibn Hajar and Sinan. Will do soon and review on my blog. I am interested in the book on Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi but couldn’t find it.

    And thank you so much for your kind words. Your suggestions and comments are much appreciated 🙂

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